What Westerners don’t know about Noh — the classic Japanese theater form in which masked dancers gracefully perform supernatural tales — could easily fill a 12-hour PBS documentary. But who wants to watch this? Certainly not the audience renegade anime director Masaaki Yuasa is looking for with “Inu-oh,” a rowdy punk alternative focusing on two social rejects whose quirky, provocative performance style broke all the rules and elevated them to status. of rock star, only to be (all but) forgotten by history.
Among the most unpredictable performers in his medium, Yuasa specializes in trippy, offbeat anime features such as “Mind Game” and “Night Is Short, Walk On Girl” that recall the work of psychedelic toonsmith Ralph Bakshi to his extreme anti-establishment (“Coonskin”, “Wizards”). Of all the filmmakers currently working in Japan, Yuasa is the last one fans would expect to have any interest in the rigorously rules-based world of Noh – until it turns out his interest lies in subversion. rigid style codes and conventions. Basically, “Inu-oh” is to Noh what spray-painted graffiti is to traditional Japanese calligraphy.
Set six centuries ago during the Muromachi period, when Noh had yet to crystallize into its present form, “Inu-oh” imagines how two fatherless young men – blind biwa player Tomona (Mirai Moriyama ) and the hideous outcast Inu-oh (voiced by genre-fluid Japanese rocker Avu-chan, lead singer of Queen Bee) — stunned the establishment by being true to himself.
In a prologue that suggests the Eastern equivalent of a Faustian market, Inu-oh’s father (Kenjiro Tsuda) acquires a magical mask that makes him the region’s most famous Noh performer. But his success comes at a price, as the powerful mask demands the soul of baby Inu-oh as payment. Or something like that. The rules are not exactly clear.
As a result of this curse, the boy is born severely deformed, with a mutilated body, a grotesquely long arm, and a face so misshapen he hides it behind a hollow gourd so as not to frighten people on the street. Yuasa spares us the Elephant Man-esque sight, but judging by the placement of the eye holes in his mask, it looks like a preschool-aged Picasso got more creative with his Mr. Potato Head doll.
Luckily for Inu-oh, Tomona can’t see and therefore doesn’t mind the stranger’s weird appearance. The two bond almost instantly when Tomona, who has been cared for by blind monks and taught to play the biwa (a lute-like string instrument with a distinctive brave sound), sings a tune, prompting one dynamic breakdance numbers from Inu-oh. , improvised on the spot. The next thing they know, the pair are swinging on a bridge together, attracting an instant fan base and threatening Noh masters.
With too much context to cover in the bumpy opening stretch (adapted from Hideo Furukawa’s novel “The Tale of the Heike: The Inu-oh Chapters”), “Inu-oh” takes a while to get to these gigs. outside. But once they’ve started, they’re electrifying to watch – far more akin to the spectacular arena spectacles kicked off by Kiss or Queen than the elegantly restrained dance poems staged in the nearby sanctuary. One of Inu-oh’s epic performances involves the toe-snap of “We Will Rock You,” while another uses 14th-century magic lantern technology to hint at history’s first Jumbotron.
The dynamic mix of rock score and period setting is reminiscent of Production I.G.’s 2015 toon “Miss Hokusai,” as Yuasa plays fast and loose with history. Tomona hails from the city of Dan-no-ura, the site of a devastating battle where Heike forces were sent to the bottom of the sea, their unstable spirits still haunting the area. As a side effect of his curse, Inu-oh can feel them: bright orange, amoeba-like drops floating and screaming their miseries in his ears.
The Noh codes only sanction a select collection of stories – to the extent that someone brutally murders monks who dare to sing about anything outside of the canon. But Inu-oh’s ability to communicate with dead Heike warriors gives him access to fresh material. These, along with its own tortured backstory, prove far more exciting to local audiences than the sweltering Noh shows, and fans quickly rally, screaming like groupies at a BTS concert.
As the characters of Inu-oh and Tomona evolve, choosing their own names becomes a sign of true freedom. The feminine costumes and features give them a kind of chic androgyny, reminiscent of both vintage glam-rock legends and the widely celebrated bishōnen (“handsome boy”) style in anime. Each time Inu-oh dances, his body mends one of his deformities – a charming fairytale twist that deepens the film’s fantasy dimension while creating a deeply satisfying finale.
Historically speaking, the traditionalists prevailed: for the next six centuries, noh had nothing to do with the wild sound and light shows that “Inu-oh” playfully imagines. But it could have been, suggests Yuasa, bending anime’s standards almost as drastically as its primitive punk superstars make their art form.